Because of the battened-down crowd and difficult surf, competition organizers had to work to keep the audience focused on the drama. The Queen of the Peak contest was part of the Betty Series, an all-girl extreme-sports series that included professional and amateur surfing competitions January 18 and 19 in Sebastian Inlet, near Melbourne.
Two disc jockeys from Orlando's WJRR-FM (101.1), an alternative-rock station, kept a steady wash of music breaking over the crowd. Announcer Hunter Joslin, an East Coast longboard surfer of some renown, worked the microphone on the top tier of a scaffold. Hunter adopted an over-the-top, play-by-play style, providing sound effects -- "ker-plunk," "splat" -- when a surfer lost her footing and tumbled into the drink. There were so many falls early in the day that he tried to make entertainment out of the pratfalls rather than the surfing. "Oh, she made a duck dive," he said after one woman plunged headfirst into the water. A six-foot statue of busty blond Jean Harlow as a '50s-era bathing beauty in a blue one-piece, the icon of the Betty Series, provided additional irony. Several men slipped their arms around her waist and posed for photo keepsakes.
The waves disappointed Kristy. They rushed the shore, peaked about waist high, and caved all at once, smashing into a gray froth. Not much to ride.
But she was stoked to see so many women contestants. She was stoked to be back in the Sunshine State after a year in California. She was stoked to be standing in Sebastian Inlet again, ready to compete. It was, as Kristy often says, awesome. So friggin' awesome that she couldn't contain herself. With her pink, swirly, fem-flashy Siren longboard slung under her arm, she raced to the water, splashed into the surf, threw her board down, climbed on, and paddled out. Yeah, she was stoked. "I wanted to get out there and surf!" she said.
Two hours later, the 25-year-old stood on the shore, shaking in the frigid air. Her sun-streaked, tawny blond hair hung in damp strings down to her shoulders. Blood rushed to her face, turning her sun-tinged skin ruddy. Her lips glowed blue under a coating of zinc oxide. Her feet felt numb. She shook so badly that unless she defrosted, she wouldn't be able to compete. A heater set up inside a tent for contestants had run out of propane, so she retreated to a Nissan Pathfinder. Inside the cab, friends Jenni Flanigan, from Jupiter, and Lauren Hill of St. Augustine had cranked the heat to full blast.
Nicely toasted after a half hour in the truck, Kristy emerged, spirit sprung back to full bounce. A South Florida native who grew up on A1A near Indiantown Road in Jupiter, right across the street from the ocean, Kristy has the sun-burnished and salt-coated air of a certain brand of Florida kid, one who would rather be in agua than on tierra. Swimming, wake-boarding, body-boarding, scuba-diving, and snorkeling -- she loved anything that involved water.
With her sporty, all-American-girl-next-door looks, deep, rusty waterlogged voice, and superpositive, fresh-squeezed attitude, she's just "Florida Girl" to many of her California surfing pals.
Lauren, Jenni, and Kristy surf old-style longboard rather then the newer, pointy-nosed shortboards on which surfers rip in and out of the waves and even become airborne. Longboard surfers ride the break of a wave, moving up to the nose of the board and back to play with the energy of the unfolding wave.
In the Queen of the Peak, longboarders surfed in the day's last heats. The three friends waited at least four hours in the cold before competing. It took a mega-dose of girl power to keep the boredom and cold from flattening the fizz of their surfer-girl enthusiasm. That's just the sort of challenge to which Kristy was born.
To pass the time, they talked about surfing in Puerto Rico: "If you go, you've got to surf Domes Beach," Lauren told her friends.
"That's what everyone says," Kristy shouted. "They say surf the Domes. You have to surf the Domes in Puerto Rico."
Then the Harlow statue: "It's gross," Jenni said. "Hate it," Kristy agreed. The irony was lost on them. It was just so not surfer girl.
A rep from a magazine called Surf Life for Women handed Kristy a copy of the latest issue. "Go Surf Life," she said to the woman. "All right." She paged through it while Jenni and Lauren looked over her shoulder. She stopped at a Surf Diva ad. "They have the sickest stuff," she said.
She halted at a double page of surf photos. The friends commented on them one by one:
Layne Beachley: "She rips." "She's awesome." "Oh, I like her." "She's just insane."
Rochelle Ballard: "She's just awesome in Blue Crush." "I just watched that last night." "Blue Crush is awesome."
They made a wall of sound, a kinetic whir of nonstop talk. Taken in bits, their patter seemed trivial, but as they piled on adjectives and affirmatives, they created an electric hum, flipping through subjects in a way reminiscent of early films, still photos riffling to form a moving picture.
Kristy tossed the magazine to the ground when the song "Shine" by Collective Soul blared from 101.1's loudspeakers. She played air guitar and sang, "Love is in the water, love is in the air/Show me where to go/Tell me will love be there." Lauren grabbed the sleeve of Kristy's wet suit for a microphone and both sang at the top of their lungs along with the chorus, "Oh heaven, let your light shine on."
"Now that's real entertainment," one of the DJ's quipped from the loudspeakers as the song finished.
Finally, late in the afternoon, Joslin calls Lauren for the first longboard heat -- under-35 amateurs. The 16-year-old has been making a name for herself as a pro-am surfer, racking up impressive victories and garnering the attention of surfing companies looking for girls to sponsor. With her tall, slim physique and waist-length thick blond hair, she has also attracted the attention of a few overzealous fans. Earlier in the day, one of them handed Lauren a book about the Beatles (he knew she liked the band) with a candid photograph of Lauren in street clothes tucked inside. "It gives me the creeps," said her mother, Megan.
A few minutes later, on a wave, Lauren shows a precise, contemplative style. As she stands hunched over on the board in a bright orange jersey, you can see her mind calculating what is happening with a wave before she gracefully scampers into position to ride it. Her board moves smoothly rather than sharply in the water, sweeping into the wave. Jenni, Kristy, and Megan watch from the shoreline as Lauren catches ride after ride, clearly outsurfing and outmaneuvering the competition.
Toward the end of the heat, while Lauren straddles her surfboard awaiting a final wave, Joslin notices a large mass darkening the water about 100 feet from shore. He tells the crowd it is a 30-foot whale. As the spectators look on, the giant creature rolls, becoming a huge gray hump as it breaches the surface.
"Oh my god," Kristy says as she watches the whale repeat the maneuver. "Dude, I want to go," she says to Jenni. "Let's go out there. Whales are so cool."
The friends remain glued to the sand, though, tracking the whale as it moves between two fishing boats. Ever-positive, Kristy takes it as a confirmation. "This is wonderful!" she says. "Do you know what a good sign that is?"
But the whale wasn't an omen of how Kristy would fare in the contest. In the last heat of the day on that first day of the two-day event, Kristy's main competitor was her friend Falina Spires, an Ormond Beach surfer currently on the world pro tour. Falina, who ranked 26th last year, is a short girl who uses her low center of gravity to glue herself to a board. In the Queen of the Peak, she dressed like a refugee from the '80s grunge scene -- a multicolored knit stocking cap on her windblown dark-brown hair and a gray hooded sweatshirt pulled up over the stocking cap. Falina competed in both the shortboard and longboard competitions that day, using the old longboard she surfed on while growing up.
As Kristy and Falina waited for their turns, the surf began forming some nice peaks. It was so inviting that they stripped down to their wet suits and took to the water just north of the contest, almost missing the announcer's call.
Once the horn blew for their heat, they paddled out together. Falina caught a wave first. She crouched low on the longboard and rode it tight to the wave, speeding like a warrior. A short time later, Kristy caught a left-break and played it with a more graceful action, getting inside the lip of the break, twisting the surfboard into the wave to ride it close, then moving out over the foam to ride the top as the wave closed out.
Surfers are judged on the style of their maneuvers, the length of their rides, and the way they respond to the wave with the board. Watching onshore, Lauren and Jenni were sure Kristy had placed either first or second in that first heat, thereby guaranteeing her a spot in the second round the following day.
At the end of the day, the judges had Kristy in second place behind Falina. But by the next morning, the organizers had changed their minds. The contest's format required surfers to indicate which wave they wanted scored, and Kristy had neglected to call her best ride. She was in third place and out of the competition. Kristy questioned the change and was told her scores had been tabulated incorrectly. "I don't know how that could happen, since we were only scored on one ride," she says. "What was there to tabulate?"
In the end, Falina won fourth place in the longboard competition, Jenni came in third, and Lauren finished second. Mimi Munro, an inductee into the East Coast Legends of Surfing Hall of Fame, took first place after riding an almost perfect wave all the way to the shore. She won $1,500 for her effort. Four-time world champ Frieda Zamba Shaw won the Queen of the Peak shortboard contest and its $5,000 purse.
Kristy lost money. She had paid $85 to compete and went home empty-handed. But she was philosophical. "That's the risk you take when you enter," she said. "It's kind of like gambling."
Women's surfing is riding a tidal wave of popularity. More than a hundred people entered the Queen of the Peak competition. Interest in the sport had been increasing steadily for years when the surfer-girl film Blue Crush was released to much hype last year and brought a frenzy of attention to the sport. Surfing camps for girls on both coasts were packed. Sports companies sponsored professional surfers. The cash prizes in women's contests and the number of contestants grew. The media take on the phenomenon was that surfer girls were no longer Bettys sitting on the beach watching the guys in the water. They had grabbed their boards and jumped on. Time magazine said in an article last year that half a million women and girls were surfing in the United States.
More recently, the fashion industry has followed the trend. Helmut Lang dubbed his Spring 2003 line "The Next Wave." In its February 2003 issue, Elle magazine did a spread titled "Blue Crush," predicting a surf-inspired spring and summer. Sales of women's surfing wear and boards is booming. Quiksilver Inc., a surfing-wear company based in Huntington Beach, California, predicts that its Roxy girl's brand, which did $210 million in sales in 2002, will outstrip the male line in two years.
And it isn't just surfers making and buying the stuff. Abercrombie & Fitch, which branched out into surfer fashion two years ago, predicts its surfing-themed Hollister line will account for 25 percent of revenue in two years.
The attention means more companies are sponsoring more girl surfers. The companies provide surfing wear -- board shorts, bathing suits, sunglasses -- and surfboards for professionals and amateurs. The firms pay contest entry fees or reimburse the women if they place in a contest. Top athletes like Layne Beachley, who is the face of Billabong Girls, are sought by companies because their radical board skills give cachet to the brand.
Still, only a handful of female professional surfers earn hefty salaries from contests and endorsements. And their earnings are anemic compared to those of men like Kelly Slater. Top-ranked men like Slater can rake in up to $1 million a year, whereas top-ranked women's earnings peak around $200,000.
Kristy rode the waves for two years in Palm Beach County and won the amateur East Coast Surfing Championship in the longboard division in 2001. Then, like many Florida surfers before her, she moved to California a year ago to test her skills. She began surfing professionally after moving to northern San Diego County and has done fairly well in local and national contests. She came in fifth overall, for instance, in the 2002 Margaritaville Series, a major longboard event. And she took second place in the senior division of the Roxy Wahine Classic in San Onofre, California, in 2002.
But she only earned $2,000 from surfing last year. She worked part-time as a waitress and as a telemarketer for an Internet company to make ends meet, even though she counts Ocean Pacific as a sponsor. But she now realizes that there just isn't enough money in the sport for her to support herself. "I moved out to California thinking I could focus on surfing," she says, "but I can't survive."
It's tough not only for unproven surfers like Kristy. Falina Spires is also struggling. In 2000, she helped launch the Elleven line of women's surfing clothing with fellow professional Prue Jeffries. The women assisted in designing the clothes and represented the owner, a California company called Bodywaves. Elleven paid Falina $2,000 a month, she says, until the line stopped production in February 2001.
To continue competing on the world circuit, Falina needs a steady sponsor willing to fund her. She has had media attention, appearing in Sports Illustrated for a segment on women athletes, yet she's having a hard time lining up a company. She's been meeting with potential backers but has not received the offer she wants. "I'm not going to take $400 a month," she vowed at the Queen of the Peak contest. "That wouldn't be fair to the other girls here. If I took $400, what does it mean they could expect?"
Falina may be somewhat of a victim of the commercialization of women's surfing. Although all the attention means that women are sought-after by sponsors and paid to appear in ads and that women's contests are funded better, some female surfers complain that companies increasingly favor women genetically gifted with surfer-babe looks over those who surf well. They want the emphasis on the authentic surfer and the money to go to developing the sport.
To Falina, Kristy, and Jenni, the surfer girl's allure is about taking risks, about dressing in skimpy bikinis because it feels good to be almost naked, not because men find it hot. Surfer girls aren't supposed to care whether their hair is wet and matted or a fingernail has chipped on the board. In Blue Crush, Jenni points out, one of the girls goaded the other by saying, "Don't be such a Barbie."
Florida has bred some world-class women surfers. World surfing champion Lisa Anderson, who is currently on the pro tour, hails from Ormond Beach, and Frieda Zamba Shaw is from Flagler Beach.
Falina explains that, though the surf in Florida doesn't match the great waves of California, Hawaii, or Australia, the state's mediocre conditions produce a scrappy surfer who learns how to make a ride out of nothing. "Florida is a great place to train because conditions aren't ideal," she says. "We don't have waves with a ton of speed and power, so we learn how to generate our own speed. You learn how to use the power in a wave, how to make the most out of it."
That scrappiness may also help when facing the surfing industry. Fort Lauderdale surfer Parya Jatala is close to sealing a deal for a three-month surfing trip through Latin America that will be videotaped and shown on South American television. Kristy and Parya filmed a pilot for the program in December.
Kristy and Jenni hope to use the power of the surfing craze to their own ends by starting their own surfing line rather than be beholden to advertisers' whims. While Abercrombie & Fitch and other companies make millions without involvement in the life, Parya, Jenni, and Kristy are following in the footsteps of the surfer guys who came before them. Most major surfing companies were founded by male surfers, and surfers buy the products because of that authenticity. Female surfers, who face inevitable airbrushing of their radical free-spirit image, crave such independence and entrepreneurship.
Last summer, Jenni and Kristy launched a line of surfboards called Siren. It's a division of Channin Surfboards in Encinitas, California. The two South Florida women are partial owners of the line and helped design and test the product. Kristy recently began working full-time at the Channin factory. She hopes to learn all she can about manufacturing surfboards. Both women ride Siren longboards, and in the Queen of the Peak contest, they signed Lauren Hill to surf the brand as well.
"We want to start off as a hardcore surfing company, by surfers for surfers," Kristy said. "We aren't a bunch of corporate people who notice surfing is getting hot and hire some people to make it happen. We are living the life."
So far, Siren has sold about 100 boards, which cost $450 to $650. The division has orders for another 100 boards, Kristy said. About 25 surfing shops on the East Coast sell Siren boards, including Groundswell Surf Shop in Juno Beach. That may not sound like much, but Kristy is happy with the results.
Siren longboards are narrower than most, Kristy says. They are easier for women to carry and to power into a wave. They also have rounder sides, which are more forgiving on turns. And they have glitter added to the resin and come in soft pastel colors, like the swirly pink of Kristy's board.
"If we can make it work for us so that we don't have to depend on anyone else to give us money, if we could actually, somehow, eventually make money and be a part of the surf industry, it would be great," Kristy said, "because both Jenni and I love surfing."
A few days of mild weather followed the Queen of the Peak contest. The surf along South Florida's coast flattened back to dismal. But on January 23, another blast of frigid air descended. That evening, the palm trees outside Parya's Fort Lauderdale apartment shook violently. Neighbors brought animals and plants indoors as weather forecasters cautioned it might reach freezing. But local surfers knew cold air might mean big surf.
When Parya slid out of bed at 6 a.m., the thermostat had dipped to 35 degrees. Out in the Atlantic, large waves rolled toward Florida's east coast from a horizon ragged with swells. By the time the sun rose, six-footers were rolling in. Around 6:30 a.m., a friend phoned to pass the word to meet at the beach near Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Parya zipped into her wet suit. She loaded her new, white, Quiet Flight shortboard into the back of her purple Ford Ranger pickup and headed out.
When she reached a secret spot in Pompano, Parya ran barefoot to the beach. The road felt like it was made of ice. "It was so cold. Our feet were freezing," she said. "I've never felt anything so painful."
The highlight of the day for Parya was riding what surfers call "a barrel." It was a little one, she says, but it rolled over and formed a tube. "That wave that I caught was like my dream," she said. "I want to get barreled again someday, a nice good barrel. It was cool. The wave is coming on top of you. It was perfect."
Parya, a striking girl with dusky skin and thick, brown, ropy hair that hangs to her waist, met Kristy and Jenni through mutual friends in South Florida's small and tight-knit surfing community. The 26-year-old doesn't share Kristy's and Jenni's hunger for competition. Fort Lauderdale's B.C. Surf and Sport sponsored her in some local competitions last year, but the shop kicked her off its team when she got so caught up in surfing on the day of a contest that she missed her heat. "I don't really like contests," she says.
After four hours in the water in Pompano, she finally had enough. She let the current carry her down the beach, paddled into the shore, and emerged into the frigid air. She jumped into her truck, desperate for a cup of coffee. Spotting a Dunkin' Donuts on A1A, she pulled in. She stood in line, hair soaked, bare feet covered with sea muck, wet suit puddling. Coffee in hand, she opened the door to leave and saw a trail of sand and saltwater. A homeless man sitting outside took one look at the dripping mermaid and commented plaintively, "Woman, you're crazy."
When a homeless guy judges you, you know you're outside the pale, she said.
After downing the coffee, Parya headed north on A1A. In Boynton Beach, she stopped at the spot locals know as "Doggie Beach." She watched eight-foot swells build to a paper-thin crest, break, and tumble along a perfect line. She telephoned Kristy to let her know she'd found surf.
After finishing her part-time job filing at an environmental engineering company in Jupiter at 1 p.m., Kristy headed south.
By 3 p.m., Kristy and Parya stood on the shoreline looking out at the breaks. "Perfect," Kristy said. "Look at that!" The two raced into the water.
Parya, on her new shortboard, had a hard time. She couldn't build enough momentum to paddle into the waves. And when she caught one, she didn't feel at ease on the new board. She kept tumbling into the surf.
Kristy, on her longboard, fared better. As one of the day's last rides carried her toward shore, she danced on the wave, moving up to the front of the board when the action slowed down, using gravity to shunt the board forward and across the wave's glassy face. She pulled the angle of the board close in and skirted the line of the break in a rush. When she slowed, she backed up and rode almost clear to the shore. "That was awesome. One more," she said as she crashed back into the surf.
Parya, whose father is Persian and whose mother is American, learned to surf as a teenager growing up in Lima, Peru, where her father worked as an agricultural scientist.
After watching a competition as a 10-year-old, she longed to surf. Her older brothers cautioned that she would develop big muscles like a man. That didn't sway her when she reached high school and a friend offered use of a board. The two skipped school and caught the bus down to the beach at Miraflores. Even though she didn't stand up on the board that first day, Parya was hooked.
She left the surfboard at the house of a fisherman named Don Pedro, whom she paid 25 cents for storage. Every day, she would wear her bikini under her school uniform, take some dry clothes to school in a backpack, and head to the beach after classes ended. Some days, she would skip school and surf all day.
She never told her parents of her obsession. "There were no girls surfing there then, not at all," she said. One day, she was almost busted. A news station showed up at the beach to film a segment on the pollution in the area. They interviewed Parya, asking her if she wasn't frightened of surfing in such a contaminated sea. "I told them I didn't think about it," she said. That night, some of her parents' friends saw her on television. Fortunately, she says, the word for surfing and running are the same in Peru -- correr -- so her parents' friends just reported that Parya had been jogging on the beach.
After graduating from high school in 1994, Parya came to the United States to study graphics design at Oklahoma City University. She spent two unhappy years at the landlocked school. When her brother, who was living in South Florida, told her about graphics classes at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, she jumped at the chance to move to Florida and again take up the sport. She imagined the area had great surf. She moved here in the summer of 1996. "I was frustrated because there were no waves," she explained. She took up skateboarding and waited for the swells.
Parya says she has become a better surfer here. She has also started taking surfing vacations, at least one a year, to the Caribbean and Latin America. Sometimes she travels alone. "You meet people when you travel by yourself," she says. "They just take you in, let you stay at their houses. It's great."
Two years ago, she took a week's vacation from a job as a graphics designer for a Fort Lauderdale printing company to surf in the Dominican Republic. The weekend she was supposed to return home, there was a surfing contest on the island. Newfound friends offered to put together the entry fees so she could compete. She called her job and lied, saying she'd lost her passport. She stayed an extra three weeks. When she returned, a work friend called to warn her she'd been fired. Within three weeks, she had several freelance graphics jobs. "Now I work out of my house," she says, "so I get to travel whenever I want."
Parya's addiction still dominates her heart. Like Kristy and Jenni, she is still angling for ways to fund her obsession. Recognizing that women's surfing is suddenly trendy, Parya and fellow Peruvian surfer Jose Madalengoitia recently began tossing around an idea that would enable them to travel, surf, and have it all paid for by someone else. "I'm trying to find any loophole I can," she says.
Jose is a videographer who worked in Fort Lauderdale for several years making film clips for boxing matches for Don King Productions. Since quitting the company a few years ago, he has taped extreme-sports footage and surfing competitions for the Miami-based Latin sports cable company, AXN.
This summer, Parya and Jose approached AXN with an idea. They wanted to do a reality-based surfer program for Latin American television. They would bring together a group of international women and travel with them throughout South America over several months, filming the friendships that developed, the hardships faced, and the waves surfed. "We want to do it now while women's surfing is hot," Parya says. "Now is the time to do it."
Unfortunately, MTV and Roxy had the same idea. MTV auditioned female surfers, age 18 to 24, in November for a reality show scheduled to air this summer. The women will train in Australia and surf around the world as they ready for professional competitions.
AXN nevertheless liked the South Florida pair's proposal and gave Jose $6,000 in December to film a pilot. Parya asked friends for the names of surfers who would qualify. Several people mentioned Kristy. The two had never met until they boarded the plane for Lima in December. When the surfers arrived, the entourage boarded a yellow VW bus painted with purple flames and drove to San Bartolo to find Peruvian surfer Karen Gamarra, whom Jose knew. The 16-year-old joined the expedition.
Recently, Parya hosted a party to air the 15-minute pilot at her apartment. "Oh, I'm so stoked," Kristy said as she sat on the sofa with her parents, Pat and Cloty. For the soundtrack, Jose laced the video with Peruvian blues and rock music in Quechua. He mixed in footage of native Peruvians riding the surf of Huanchaco in caballos de totora, long narrow boats made of reeds that many Peruvians believe anticipated surfboard design.
The pilot is upbeat and fast-moving. Clips of the girls napping, running into the surf, and climbing a rock wall in a bar are spliced together and speeded up to crunch time. In one sequence, Kristy unknowingly eats a cow's heart. "It kind of captured the adventure of a trip," Parya explains. "You are always doing things for the first time, learning about the culture. There's frustration and excitement."
The women skateboarded with some local kids in the Peruvian mountains on the way to a whitewater rafting trip in Huaraz, downed beer at the bar of a hitchhiker they picked up along the way, and visited ancient ruins. They also surfed.
Parya and Jose showed the tape to AXN soon after the Queen of the Peak contest. Two weeks ago, Jose, who is in Costa Rica, e-mailed Parya. An AXN executive told him to make a list of equipment he'll need for the project. Now Parya wants to find amateur surfers from five countries to go on a three-month surf trip.
Parya says it will be different from the MTV version of the same idea. It will be homegrown, for one thing. "This will be real people on a real trip where nothing's planned," Parya says. "We just want it to be completely natural." Kristy has already signed on. "She has to come," Parya says. "She is so stoked about everything.
"We want to make it so that everyone involved comes out of it with a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she says. "It's about traveling, finding new spots to surf, meeting the locals, and learning about the culture -- just a really, really nice, long surf trip."